Uttarakhand Forests Have Burnt Before, but Let Them Not Burn in Vain

Maybe enough time has passed for us to treat these forests as habitats that are home to humans and animals.

Credit: PTI

Credit: PTI

Today marks two years to the day that I packed two suitcases and moved out of Delhi to live and work in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand.

The sun hasn’t shone in this resplendent valley for four days now. A thick blanket of smoke hangs like a doom in the air. I often romanticise about the mountain mist that drifts in from the windows in monsoons when the verdant mountainside peeks in as the fog parts. This is different. The valley is dry and the denuded parts, where usually the rain brings green grass is just brown along with the terraced fields, where the dhaan begins to sprout by now, because the exceptionally dry land is not fit for any crop to even be sown. There are dry pine needles covering the entire forest floor wherever it meets the eye. But there is more. In the day you can see serpentine smoke bellowing from one side of the valley one day and another part the next. The summer breeze, which often gathers the force of a gale and brings respite in the blazing sun, is the same that carries these fires. It is almost like the cloud that is heavy with water and carries it from one place to rain in another. As dusk falls and darkness overtakes the valley, you can begin to see the amber of the fires that are smouldering. The mountainside is like a fabric on which an ember has fallen and the singed circumference is slowly increasing. One can’t help admire the beauty even as one laments the tragedy unfolding in front of their eyes.

For the first time in these two years, I have come back home from a field visit with a headache that I am blaming on the smoke that I see all around. I met Lalita, a local from Kujoli who narrated how she and her family were dousing the fire approaching their hamlet till midnight the night before. Bhuvan, another local said they were at it just two evenings ago. The people of the village come together and create a fence around the forest with mud to prevent the fire from spreading. Water is precious. It is used very sparingly. Who is setting these fires? No one seems to know. One only hears rumours for which, ironically, forest fire is used as a metaphor.

Some women set fires to small wooded parts inside the village to clear the floor of pine needles. They believe burning the pine needles clears the floor for fresh grass to grow after spells of rain. The pine needles are also slippery and pose danger to people and cattle. These fires are usually so small in scale that they go out on their own; otherwise, the women generally linger around the site and put it out as soon as it starts to go out of hand. This is a customary practice that has been around for as long as anyone remembers. It has grown around the rhythms of the forest that the hill folk have an intimate relationship with. They are not committing acts of crime where the arsonist runs away from the scene of crime and everything is reduced to cinders.

But I have heard more rumours. There is timber mafia in the region that goes around setting fire to the forests so no one has the count of how many trees have been stolen. I have sometimes heard the sounds of an axe in the dead of the night. It is so dark and the acoustics of the valley such that one doesn’t even know where the sounds are coming from. I have also heard that it is the pine resin tappers who set these fires. They have only a fixed number of trees that they are allowed to tap and cannot tap the same trees again as the trees need to recover. Setting forests on fire chars the barks of the trees along with the gashes made for extracting resin and no one can tell which trees were tapped. They also say that it is the forest officials who set the forests on fire. Before the official year ends in march, they report they have planted their quota of trees for the year. Just after that the summer takes over and the forest fires erupt. No one counts burnt trees. So no one knows whether they were planted in the first place.

As I was going through my favourite book about the region, Ramachandra Guha’s The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Resistance and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya, I was struck by a description of a summer exactly a hundred years ago. The year 1916, apparently witnessed a surge of ‘intentional fires’ in the reserve forests that had been newly constituted:

“The ‘deliberate and organised incendiarism’ of the summer of 1916 brought home to the state the unpopularity of the forest settlement and the virtual impossibility of tracing those who were responsible for the fires. Numerous fires broke out simultaneously over large areas, and often the occurrence of one fire was the signal for general firing of the whole neighbourhood.”

The villagers apparently did this to get a fresh crop of grass. But it was also done in protest of the laws that took away the forests of the people and ‘reserved’ them for the then government that would use the forests to grow the ecologically dangerous ‘chir pine’ which was commercially beneficial in timber trade as well as resin-tapping.

This summer, there is no British government to protest against, but the reserved forests of the time still exist. We still do not know who exactly is setting these fires. But it is these ‘chir pine’ forests, which the British promoted for timber and resin, that have become a bane for the Himalayas. The ecologically favourable banj oak forests are far and few but still provide a glimpse of what the forests of the Himalayas should have been like if they were not destroyed by the global greed for timber. The forest floor of the banj oak forests are moist and the fallen leaves become mulch that is not just good for the forest but also makes the best compost for agriculture that is still largely practiced without fertiliser in the region. The banj oaks retain water and improve run-offs that go into mountain streams and also makes fires in these forests harder to spread.

A hundred years ago, the forests were cordoned off from the hill folk and harvested as an economic resource. Chir pine that makes the soil too acidic for other plants to grow was planted and promoted. The forest fires even became an important aspect of British silviculture where some forests were selectively burnt to prevent other species from growing. Maybe enough time has passed for us to treat these forests as habitats that are home to humans and animals. Forests have the innate ability to regenerate if they are allowed to. We need policy intervention to help with that. Even as the news channels report that the fires are dying, the biggest fire that I have seen so far from this side of the valley is unfolding. Everyone who has lived here knows which trees are ecologically beneficial. May be it is time for us leave the place better off for the people who inhabit the valley hundred years from now. These forests have burnt before but let them not burn in vain.

Prakriti Mukerjee works as a researcher on a project on traditional knowledge based agriculture in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand.